Tag Archives: Diane Ravitch

This Too Shall Pass

The Big Think has a rather poorly worded article, “Can we reach the end of knowledge.”

The article borders are incomprehensibility, because it confuses three things: ways of knowing, which are how we understand the world, science, one way of knowing based on testing falsifiable hypotheses, and normal science, which is a social phenomenon capable of scientific progress through the exemplars of good research.

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Humans will have “ways of knowing” as long as we exist, and science as long as we desire it, so the only sensible way to ask the question is how normal science will end: how will we stop making scientific progress?

Assuming a lack of a nuclear holocaust or other calamity, we will stop making progress in science for the same reason that we will stop making progress in the construction of propeller planes (a technology that has been in decay since the 1940s): the costs will exceed the benefits.

Three broad possible mechanisms for the end of normal science, therefore, are:

1. Increase in the costs of normal science, all other things being equal, or
2. Decrease in the benefits of, normal science, all other things being equal, or
3. Some external change, in other words, all things stop being equal.

On way the costs of normal science might increase is if that non-scientific fields outbid scientific fields for workers whose skills are essential to science. We may already be seeing this happen. A bit ago, Razib Khan had a much better written article, “The Real End of Science,” in which he noted the increase in scientific cheating. This is presumably undetected because there are too few scientists relative to the work we have available to them, and how much we are paying them.

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Related to this, normal science may end because of a decrease in the benefits of normal science. Perhaps the economic return on capital in both the short, medium, and long terms will be relatively low for scientific investments as opposed to capital improvements, and so it does not make sense to pay enough for scientists to engage in research that can make progress.

Thirdly, the ecosystem that supports normal science might collapse, changing the costs and benefits simultaneously. For instance, folks like Diane Ravitch are openly hostile to normal science and the federal-academic complex that supports it. A coalition of leftists and rightists could take down or deform the Large Research Universities and the Grant Funding Agencies to greatly retard normal science, subjecting them to the same lobotomy of low wages that has destroyed the American teaching profession.

Of course normal science will end. The important questions are when it will end, and who will miss it?

How Science and Academia Work

Summary

  • Science is not a cartoon
  • Science works by predicting variation
  • Science advances by exploiting human nature
  • Some science experiments have multiple outcome variables and multiple predictors

Science Is Not A Cartoon

The cartoon version of “science” — that definition that teachers who had no idea what they were talking about gave you — runs along these lines:

Science is a method for understanding Truth. To understand Truth, a great scientist thinks deeply, and using the tomes he has read along with his powers of reflection, generates a Theory. Then, with great care, an elaborate contraption is created test the Theory. If the test works, the Hypothesis is Proven, and it becomes a Fact. Otherwise, the Theory is Wrong, and the cycle begins again.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. That’s not science. That’s what children think of as science.

Science Works by Predicting Variation

Here’s a better definition of science:

Science is a method for predicting variation. To better predict variation, scientists construct Theories, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. For instance, the theory of Gravity explains the brute fact of an apple on a tree in one moment, and the same apple on the great in the next, into a narrative. Theories are operationalized using hypotheses, which generate specific predictions. So gravity on Earth can be operationalized as predicting that gravity acts like an acceleration that forces all object to the ground at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second. Run enough experiments and you will begin to see this simple hypothesis mis-predict events, which will force you to generate other hypotheses. Eventually you will have a set of hypotheses which predict events enough to be useful to you.

I say this because of a recent post by Diane Ravitch (who was recently fired from the Brookings Institution), criticizing a Gates Foundation grant to measure attentiveness through measurement of human the electrical system.

If you know what science is, and how it works, your immediate thoughts should be.

Scientists desire to predict variation in educational outcomes. These scientists doubtless have Theories of education, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. These theories are probably operationalized using hypotheses, which have generated specific predictions. There probably is error in the these predictions, which are leading to follow-up hypothesis. These scientists must think by adding information on attentiveness measured through the electrical system, they can reduce error, and predict educational outcomes better.

If you know nothing about science, such as Diane Ravitch, your reaction differs, you’ll write a nonsensical post with only one declarative sentence: “Shades of Brave New World.”

Science Advances By Exploiting Human Nature

Now, given that, try to understand the study, as the historian Mark Safranski did, in this way:

 

Let’s start from the assumption that this GSR bracelet study is actually a scientific study without hidden agendas.

But before the end of his first sentence, Mark (who unlike Diane, is attempting to seriously engage in this issue) is already lost on irrelevant tangents.

Why would science be free of “hidden agendas”? Why would scientists be some cold automatons driven by computer programs with no feelings, emotions, hopes dreams, or goals? Science advances through Academia. This is done by rewarding professors for obeying the interests of peer-reviewed grant funding agencies.:

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money. For example, consider a professor who receives grant money from a federal agency. Some of this money goes to equipment, but the majority goes to employing several graduate students to work on this large project. Likewise, with this funding, he and his team will be writing numerous articles using the latest techniques on very large data sets, and can be expected to quickly become influential in that area. Because these graduate students have him both as an employer and as an academic adviser, when they graduate with their own doctorates, they will be experts at creating ways to detect bad standardized tests (after all, it’s what they’ve been doing for years), in a few years his influence on their careers will be apparent, and they will likewise go about working on similar problems — citing him and each other as they go along.

Believing that science is free of hidden agendas is like believing that politics is free of hidden agendas: that belief is an idea that completely ignores the reality that science, like politics, takes place among human beings.

Some Science Experiments Have Multiple Outcome Variables and Multiple Predictors

Following that, Mark gives a fair summary of the research proposal, before stumbling on a subtle but important point::

Is a normal classroom setting (say 20 to low 30’s of students) recording arousal during a 40-50 minute lesson with different student and teacher behaviors a good experimental setting where variables are identified, isolated and controlled? No. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of variables in this environment and the researchers need to separate all the “noise” from the moment of learning. To say nothing about interruptions coming from outside the classroom (ex. fire drill, students entering, leaving, PA announcements) skewing the GSR readings.
Is it a reasonable assumption that the ideal teacher state of arousal for instructing students is the same or should even correlate with student arousal levels? No. This would seem to be a separate hypothesis to be investigated.

Given that the important parts of this post are that science works through iterative experiments to predict variation, and that the social enterprise of science depends on scientists responding to incentives, I hesitate to include the following point, but Mark’s comments bring it up.

Implicit in Mark’s comment is the idea of predicting a dependent variable from an independent one, or to put it another way, basic algebra in the format.

y = mx +b

With y as the predicted variable, x as the predictor, m and b as the intercept.  Students and trainee researchers sometimes used this exact form (which they would have learned as children in elementary algebra), because this form, the simplest of all scientific forms, is also the most advanced most laymen or reporters actually grasp.

More advanced research — the kind that has hundreds to thousands of participants — uses the almost identical form.

Y = MX + B

That is, more advanced research uses matrix algebra to allow for multiple outcomes, multiple predictors, multiple slopes, and multiple intercepts.

Conclusion

If you can put together more than one declarative sentence in a comment talking about a scientific study that leads to implications you are uncomfortable with, you have a firmer grasp of the scientific method than Diane Ravitch.

The Enemies of the Federal-Academic Complex

The Federal-Academic Complex is that collection of bureaucrats and researchers that set the educational agenda in the United States. The Federal-Academic Complex does this through understanding the mechanics of education, while being empathetic to the concerns of educational stakeholders (such as parents and employers).

The Federal-Academic Complex has enemies of two classes. The first is composed of conservatives and Republicans who are generally hostile to public spending. One member of this class is Sen. Chuck Grassley, as I described previously. Conservative/Republican opposition to the Federal-Academic Complex is concentrated among an ideological minority in both movements, and I will not address it further in this post.

The second class of enemies is composed of teachers. Teachers and their front organizations (the NEA, the AFT, the NPTA, etc.) used to set the education agenda. Because teachers were unable to education children and were unable to act empathetically to others, they no longer do – that is the role of the Federal-Academic Complex.

An example to teacher hostility to the Federal-Academic Complex is this tweet by Diane Ravitch:

Tax breaks for rich Princeton, pennies for public colleges

Ravitch’s comment is in reaction to an article by Richard Vedder that notes successful universities are successful, in part, for their success in attracting alumni support and federal research grants.

Teachers unions and similar groups do not care how academia works. They simply want to demonize academia (a successful part of the American social fabric) to rescue their own position in public elementary, middle, and high schools (a failed part of the American social fabric).

Partisanship as a Strategy of the Weak

If you listen to anti-education-reform activists like Diane Ravitch, you’ll notice an odd-pattern

First, a long list of enemies, ranging from liberals such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Andrew Cuomo; independents such a Mort Zuckerman and Michael Bloomberg; and conservatives such as George Bush, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney.

Second, rhetoric associated with the political left, including “Governor 1%,” “I won’t turn my back on unions,” “rightwingers,” and “Tea-Party teacher-basher.”

Why do anti-reform activists use the rhetoric of the left, when the leadership of the  left and right are united against them?

Some people will say that this is evidence of the lobotomized nature of the teaching activists. Those people will say that if you treat a political group as badly as teachers have been treated — if you pay them very little for generations until you finally run the professionals out of teaching — you should expect foolish and self-defeating rhetoric and policies from that group. After all, the teaching profession was foolish enough to lose its leadership position in the education arena, and to allow its once dominant political network to be encircled by hostile stakeholders. If teachers were so smart, so the argument would go, why would academics and bureaucrats be setting the terms of the education reform debate?

I’ve harshly criticized teachers for being politically deaf, and even opponents of education reform (such as my friend Mark Safranski) readily agree the teacher leadership is not up to the job

You are particularly right on in saying the union leadership was incapable of dealing with this challenge and in denial (minus one guy in the 90′s, Bob Chase, who saw all of this coming and tried to reform the NEA to no avail. His current successor is a fool and a potential sell-out to find a comfortable place for himself)

There is, however, another possibility. It is possible that anti-reform activists are trying to start a political battle over education reform. If a rational actor finds himself in a position with no friends, and without the capacity to express empathy to other actors, the next best thing is to gain friends through the tactic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Activists like Diane Ravitch may be trying to incite a Republican-Democratic divide over education policy, and hope that their membership in one party’s coalition provides them protection.

There is evidence that this tactic has shown some success. For instance, the 2011 Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protests led to a flurry of anti-Reform anti-Republican sentiment on partisan Democratic sites, including articles like these:

Whether or not partisanship is the intention of Diane Ravitch and others, it certainly an outcome of their rhetoric. And, if partisanship is the strategy of the weak in this case, it is hardly the first time. The early Christians threw their lot into the pro-Roman faction of Imperial politics, even though the Romans were actively hostile to the Christians. If Paul could endorse Caesar, is it that surprising that Ravitch would use leftist rhetoric?

Americans who support education reform should thus be careful to avoid falling into traps set by anti-reform activists. In particular, elite-level consensus is probably a smarter strategy than political mass movements, as mass movements can more easily be hijacked by partisan rhetoric.

How Science Works

Diane Ravitch is a labor agitator with a focus on the education sector. She is interesting to read if you care about union politics as it applies to education from a teacher’s (as opposed to student’s, parent’s, or nation’s perspective). As such following Diane Ravitch on twitter has the same sort of twisted excitement as, say, following a NAMBLA report on age-of-consent laws: they are definitely interested in the subject area, but for all the wrong reasons.

(I’m not sure if the effect of an individual child from a terrible education is worse than the effect of rape at a young age, though I suspect it is.)

In any case, Ravitch recently linked to a blog post, titled “Regents agree to give NY students data to limited corporation run by Gates and operated by Murdoch’s Wireless Gen.” The thrust of the article is that the not-for-profit Gates Foundation is providing funds to use test data to build more effective teacher assessments. The Gates Foundation wants to improve teacher quality, so that makes sense. And Ravitch is a labor agitator, so of course she is against this. So far, so good. Presumably drill-fitters would be against measuring the productivity of drill-fittings to a similar degree.

My friend Mark Safranski was curious about the story thouge. Mark mentioned, I don’t know if their data analysis is valid or reliable. Sounds like they don’t have a model yet but have a contract, and asked Why would this be figured out on the fly?.

The reason a model would be “figured out on the fly” is that this is how science works.

There is a cartoon version of science along these lines

Science is a method for understanding Truth. To understand Truth, a great scientist thinks deeply, and using the tomes he has read along with his powers of reflection, generates a Theory. Then, with great care, an elaborate contraption is created test the Theory. If the test works, the Hypothesis is Proven, and it becomes a Fact. Otherwise, the Theory is Wrong, and the cycle begins again.

This is a ridiculous view of how science works, and that Americans believe it is on prima facia evidence that our education system is deeply broken.

Science is a method for predicting variation. To better predict variation, scientists construct Theories, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. For instance, the theory of Gravity explains the brute fact of an apple on a tree in one moment, and the same apple on the great in the next, into a narrative. Theories are opertaionalized using hypotheses, which generate specific predictions. So gravity on Earth can be operationalized as predicting that gravity acts like an acceleration that forces all object to the ground at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second. Run enough experiments and you will begin to see this simple hypothesis mis-predict events, which will force you to generate other hypotheses. Eventually you will have a set of hypotheses which predict events enough to be useful to you.

Many individuals who hold the first view, on hearing the news about building a database of student test scores, would be confused. What is the Theory being tested? Why won’t the Great Scientist tell us? How will we easily know if he has discovered Truth, or he is Wrong?

Because this is not how science works, people who think this way believe in Pseudoscience.

Instead, actual scientists would be approach the work in a different manner. These scientists want to know what types of education best prepare students for life outside of school. They look at outcomes, such as health, income, years in college, degrees earned, social class, criminal convictions, and so on. To recognize that to the extent that ‘success’ exists, it is a latent construct that is only imperfectly, and with error, reflected in any one of these measures, using a Theory. These scientists also look at how one can objectively measure student achievement & teacher quality (two different things, certainly), also using Theories. A simple hypothesis is created, and tested on some data. Run enough studies, and the scientists will begin to see how this simple hypothesis mis-predicts events, which forces them to create more hypothesis. Eventually, the scientists have a set of hypotheses which predict student success enough to be useful to policy makers.

It is this process that Diane Ravitch and other labor agitators are deeply opposed to. A world where teacher quality can be assessed is one where bad teachers might be forced to become good teachers or be fired. This breaks worker solidarity, and means that some teachers will work harder, when any good labor organization wants to make working conditions easier for its members.

I believe in student welfare — and having a strong nation — more than I believe in labor agitation, so I support education reform, and oppose pseudoscience.

Diane Ravitch v. Science

Over on twitter, my friend Mark Safranski and I have been having a conversation regarding school reform. Diane Ravitch, and the role of science in public policy.

Diane Ravitch is a historian. Being a historian, she has never published any scientific work. But she knows just enough science to be dangerous. Take for instance this line, which she seems to actually think is relevant:

Guggenheim [the directory of Waiting for “Superman”]seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores.

Think of how stupid this line is.

Imagine someone criticizing heavy launch vehicles, castigating those who believe that “chemicals alone” can overcome the effects of gravity, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between gravity and crashing to earth.

Imagine someone criticizing vaccination, castigating those who believe that “medicines alone” can overcome the effects of malnutrition, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between malnutrition and mortality.

Imagine someone criticizing civil engineering, castigating those who believe that “better on ramps alone” can overcome the effects of traffic, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between driving and danger.

Identifying the single largest influence in a system may be a useful trick for historians. This allows them to reduce a complicated reality to a simple narrative, which they can then tell to others. This is a historian’s craft, and it’s fine, as long as one realizes that all history is the process of simplified deception.

Science is the process of “predicting, controlling, and improving” variation in a system. In science, unlike history, one does not simply take the largest contributing factor and write a narrative around it. Instead, one seeks to understand what the most efficacious ways of changing variation in a system is.

Ravitch‘s use of scare quotes around “alone” may be meant to mock scientists, but it ends up mocking herself.

Whether or not teaches “alone,” or heavy-lift chemicals “alone,” or vaccinations “alone” is irrelevant. Ravitch, in the same article, continues her irrelevant, worthless, straw-man attack

The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement

Again, think of how stupid this line is.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis in today’s aeronautics community is the idea that heavy lift chemicals are the most important factor in determing an objects moments.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis of the medical community is that vaccinations are the most important facotr in determining someone’s health.

Imagine someone saying the central thesis of the civil engineering is that on-ramps are the most important factor in determining the safety of a commute.

We are fortunate there is a biparistan consensus to ignore hacks like Diane Ravitch, and instead use scientific methods to improve our failing public schools. I am grateful to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama for pushing science-based school reform, instead of falling under the pseudoscientific haze that envelops Diane Ravitch and her provincial allies.